Psychologists are working hard to understand COVID-19. Here’s what they know.
The scientific community has been working tirelessly to understand the best ways to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.
What has this meant for the field of psychology? A lot of research in a short amount of time.
Here are four insights from psychology’s rapidly emerging coronavirus research landscape. Hopefully, these findings will help you navigate the second and third waves of the pandemic with a bit more equilibrium than the first.
Tip #1: Self-control is critical.
Self-control has always been an important part of life success. People who are able to delay gratification and resist temptations tend to be healthier, wealthier, and happier.
But new research suggests that self-control is more important now than ever. A team of psychologists led by Michail Kokkoris of Vrije University in the Netherlands found that people with high self-control were better able to stick to their pre-pandemic routines, had an easier time developing new goal-directed behaviors, and were more effective at turning these new positive behaviors into habits.
“Even though the world has changed dramatically,” write the researchers, “high self-control people demonstrate a remarkable capacity to stick to pre-existing habits and have the flexibility to develop new habits that better meet situational demands. The combination of these two—maintaining past habits and developing new ones—is high self-control people’s recipe for success in turbulent times.”
One area where self-control is especially important has to do with diet. We are all spending a disproportionate amount of time at home and the pantry is only a few steps away. A recent study showed that “poor appetite or overeating” was the depressive symptom that has increased the most since the start of the pandemic. Be mindful of your eating habits and exercise self-control to the extent that you can.
Tip #2: Deflect stress by leveraging a positive mindset.
Research has found some mindsets to be better than others at deflecting the stress produced by COVID-19.
Which mindsets work best? Three, according to psychologists Hannes Zacher and Cort Rudolph. They are described below.
- A challenge mindset describes the belief that one has sufficient resources to overcome difficult events and can “achieve personal gains or growth when mobilizing physical and psychological energy.” This was found to be positively related to life satisfaction during the pandemic.
- A controllable-by-self mindset refers to the belief that the pandemic is, to some degree, controllable through one’s choices and behavior. People who adopt this mindset are more likely to believe that preventative measures such as wearing a mask, washing hands frequently, and taking good care of oneself are effective at preventing the virus from spreading. This mindset was associated with the highest levels of psychological well-being during the pandemic.
- A controllable-by-others mindset refers to the view that an individual can rely on other people to help manage a given stressor. In the case of COVID-19, this might entail a belief that a government, community, or even a spiritual entity is able to effectively manage and control the course of the pandemic. This was also found to be a helpful mindset in promoting psychological well-being during the outbreak.
Tip #3: Find a coping strategy (or two, or three) that works for you.
People cope with stress in different ways. A new study published in American Psychologist identifiesa number of coping strategies that are associated with increased resilience in the face of the pandemic. Topping the list of effective coping strategies are active coping, positive reframing, instrumental support, religion, and acceptance. Here’s a definition of each:
- Active coping is characterized by solving problems, seeking information or social support, seeking help, and/or changing one’s environment. Generally speaking, an active coping strategy occurs when an individual makes a conscious decision to change his or her life for the better. For example, the many people who have sought out the support of a therapist or mental health practitioner during the pandemic is a form of active coping.
- Positive reframing occurs when someone turns a negative into a positive, or finds the best in a given situation. For instance, acknowledging that the pandemic has led you to learn a new skill you might not have otherwise acquired, instead of bemoaning the fact that you have been stuck inside, is an example of a positive reframe.
- Religion. Coping with stress or trauma through the comfort found in religious or spiritual practices is another effective way to manage COVID-19-induced anxiety.
- Acceptance is about not allowing ourselves to get caught up fighting against things that are out of our control and, instead, responding to change in a way that aligns with our values.
- Instrumental support refers to various types of help others may provide you—for instance, by offering financial assistance, childcare, or housekeeping support.
This is not to say that one coping strategy is necessarily better than another. Rather, it’s about finding what works for you.
The researchers do offer some guidance on what not to try. They found that denial, substance use, and venting actually caused more harm than good. They also found that self-distraction and humor neither induced a positive nor negative change in people’s mental health during the pandemic.
Tip #4: Socially distance yourself from coronavirus news.
If we were perfectly rational creatures, COVID-19 would concern us only to the extent that it could harm us. If the last 50 years of psychological research has taught us anything, however, it’s that people are far from rational. We are inordinately influenced by our emotions. We follow the lead of other people. Things that come readily to mind are viewed as statistical certainties.
So, it should come as no surprise that scientists in Poland found that the second-highest factor associated with COVID-19 anxiety was how much news people watched about the pandemic.
What was the highest factor? How dangerous they perceived the threat to be. And one can only imagine that these factors are related: the more information we get about COVID-19, the more likely we are to perceive the threat as dangerous, and the more likely we are to exhibit elevated levels of COVID-19 anxiety.
This is the chain reaction of worry.
If you need more convincing, the scholars found the existence of chronic health conditions, one’s age, and one’s general health condition—all things that have been proven to increase the threat posed by COVID-19—to be less predictive of coronavirus anxiety than news exposure. Again, humans are far from rational.
This does not mean we should bury our heads in the sand until the pandemic is over. Rather, it should serve as a gentle reminder to monitor the amount of COVID-19 information you are letting in.
“Media attention may have been a mixed blessing,” state the researchers, led by Marta Malesza of the University of Economics and Human Sciences in Warsaw, Poland. “On the one hand, rapid communication of the risks of infection would seem to promote healthy behavior change and reduce the spread of contagion. On the other hand, mass media coverage of a pandemic can potentially lead to mass hysteria and fear.”
Conclusion: Until we get a vaccine, the best offense is a good defense. Try adopting a few of these defensive strategies to sustain your mental health during COVID-19’s second and third waves. The pandemic may not be going anywhere, but neither are you.
This article is originally written by Mark Travers, who is a psychologist and is republished here from psychology today under common creative licenses.